The Himalayan town of Joshimath is sinking. Its houses have been declared dangerous to live in and hitherto, 600 families have been ordered to move from their houses into government-run shelters. The local authority has so far moved 81 people to temporary accommodations and made alternate arrangements for 4,000 people in Joshimath and nearby Pipalkoti.
Across Uttarakhand, around 678 homes in nine wards have developed fissures and become unfit for residing, as per government figures. In Joshimath, located at around 1800 metres above sea level, in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, large cracks have appeared on walls, pillars have collapsed and entire houses, built of concrete, have begun subsiding. It is a sight that creates terror in the minds of viewers and has left residents stranded, fearful, anguished.
While some people in Joshimath had invested their entire life’s savings into building their homes, others with commercial establishments like hotels and guest houses have lost their most visible sources of income. Atleast two large hotels in the town have been earmarked for impending demolition.
So much agony and displacement need not have happened. It was avoidable. It has lessons for other towns in other states with similar topography, terrain and ‘development’ trajectory. Satellite data reveals that Joshimath and its neighbouring areas have been sinking at the rate of 6.5 cm every year.
First, a look at the main reasons why the subsidence in Joshimath, the gateway to Badrinath, has taken place.
Traditionally, houses here were built using wood and stone. This was in keeping with local building knowledge and practice. But with time and for the sake of ease of construction and budget-friendliness, medium-sized wood and stone homes were replaced with large, unwieldy hotels and tourist homes made of concrete. All this has had a cumulative effect on the carrying capacity of the town, which was already fragile since geologists believe it is located on the remnants of an ancient landslide. Experts are of the view that the entire foundation of Joshimath town is unstable.
Unbridled tourist activities and the demand for boarding and lodging created by several lakh tourists who pass through this town each year as part of the Char Dham Yatra is also to blame. Despite being aware of the irreversible impact of tourism-linked economic activities on the area’s ecology, the authorities appear to have done nothing to limit and restrict the number of visitors and make it sustainable in any real sense of the word. In this case, myopic ‘development’ policies have clearly contributed to the ecological catastrophe evident in the sinking of Joshimath.
Another contributing factor for its current state is the absence of proper drainage in the town. In the hurry to construct poorly-planned buildings, drainage channels were either covered up or became overloaded, resulting in seepage under the foundations of houses. Over the years, this has translated into large crevices developing on walls and pillars caving in.
Unauthorised construction, hastily-granted building permissions and corruption in other practices involving building homes and hotels has seen Joshimath come to such a pass.
Meanwhile, in the name of ‘development’, hydro-electric power projects have been commissioned in the Joshimath area on a large scale. These involve blasting of boulders and digging tunnels, making an already-fragile terrain weaker and more prone to collapse. In February 2021, there was a flash flood in Raini village and thousands of tonnes of debris got drained into the Rishi Ganga river. Since Raini and Joshimath fall in the same geographical area, activists believe that disaster must have had an impact on Joshimath.
According to Atul Sati, a member of Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, the cracks people are witnessing now could result from that incident. He also feels that the number of clefts developing in buildings could go up rapidly because of the NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugadh hydropower project, as many tunnels are being drilled as part of it.
Joshimath has lessons for other towns and cities in the country, located on similar fragile Himalayan terrain and with a history of similar ‘developmental’ activities, including dams and hydro-electric projects.
The Himalayan terrain is already fragile and burdening its narrow valleys and eroding hillsides with tunneling, building dams and ambitious power projects is a recipe for disaster.
Prone to earthquakes, the states of Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim particularly and other north-eastern states in general, would benefit if they take lessons from Uttarakhand and its many avoidable tragedies. From the Uttarkashi earthquake of 1991 to the Kedarnath flooding in 2013 and the more recent catastrophe in the Rishi Ganga power project in February 2021, Uttarakhand has, for lack of a better term, been used almost as an experiment by the powers-that-be for all kinds of ‘development’ projects and growth programmes.
Its residents have resisted all this and their efforts became world-famous through the Chipko Andolan of the 1970s where women would hug trees earmarked to be chopped down in the name of ‘development’. But there’s only so much a group of determined but simple people can hope to achieve against the juggernaut of firm government resolve and greed-fuelled corporate insistence.
Joshimath and its current situation holds lessons for other Himalayan hill towns, from Shimla, Manali and Mussoorie in the north-west to Darjeeling, Gangtok and Itanagar in the north-east.
Taking Environmental Impact Assessment studies seriously, paying heed to conventional wisdom regarding terrain, topography and construction norms, ensuring ‘development’ is not prioritised over nature and natural interests — these are some measures that must be factored into any ongoing or future plans for turning pristine mountain towns and habitats into sanitised, insular ‘urban’ entities.
Urban planners, ‘developers’, government agencies, corporate lobbyists — there’s a lesson for them all in the unfolding disaster at Joshimath. Time and again, we have been warned that disregarding this can have serious, unforeseen, life-threatening consequences; we are now at a stage where ignoring all the warning signs Nature is sending us will come at a high, irreversible cost.